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A Woman's Place- Part 1


By Angela Felsted

In 1999, one year after I graduated from college, I agreed to marry someone I hardly knew. We had been dating less than three months and neither of us had reason to rush things. He wasn’t dying; I wasn’t pregnant; and we both had our US citizenship. My younger brother, who was serving a two-year Mormon mission, wanted me to delay the marriage until he got home. I refused, but in defense of my rash decision, there were two things pushing me toward the altar: romantic love, and a desire to hold onto my virginity until my nuptials.

Turmoil set in after our honeymoon. I slept on the couch a lot. (My in-laws and parents were unaware of my struggles since I put on a smile and said everything was fine.) It seemed like the man I lived with had changed overnight, and I wanted my fiancé back. He had been so thoughtful while we dated—bringing me daisies, holding my hand, snuggling with me on the couch. I had thought, when we married, that I’d wake up in his arms each morning, or fall asleep looking into his brown eyes. Instead my husband made the bed with separate blankets. He went stiff when I embraced him and took issue with my “clinginess.” When I worked to keep an optimistic outlook, I could accept his need for space. Other times I felt desperate and alone. Was I foolish to believe marriage would be blissful?

Twelve years later, I still ask myself this question. I am 35, with a husband who has learned to hug me when I cry, four kids finally old enough to dress themselves, and a new illusion shattered: that motherhood is a fulfilling and idyllic legacy.

With kids in elementary school, I thought I’d miss the infant stage—the rush of love I got from watching my newborn son in sleep, lashes spread out like half moons against his cheeks. Rather I feel like I’m leaving a dark tunnel, with tantrums, dirty diapers, and sleepless nights behind me. In the years before I had children, I didn’t fear parenting because I believed myself an expert. This wasn’t pride so much as ignorance; I put my younger sister to bed when I was 10, started babysitting at 12, worked at a daycare center at 19, and looked down my nose at parents who could not control their children.

There were a lot of things I failed to grasp as a young single woman. My choice to marry a man I’d dated for less than six months for emotional reasons (“romantic love”), can be attributed to the naïve storybook belief that everyone has a match. And my decision to place sexual morality above the modern notion of testing the waters (“a desire to hold onto my virginity until my nuptials”) is a principle modeled by my mother, who chose to stay home with her five children in the seventies and eighties, when second-wave feminism called rigid gender roles oppressive.

Growing up in a traditional Mormon home, I saw no problems with the patriarchal model my parents used. My father presided insofar as he chose which of his kids would say grace at the dinner table. He brought home a paycheck, gave the occasional priesthood blessing, and taught me how to ride a bike and throw a Frisbee. When my brothers turned twelve and were ordained Deacons, they passed the bread and water each Sunday and began to prepare for their missions through study and prayer. I was taught that a woman had no greater calling than to marry a worthy priesthood holder and rear a family. In high school, my female church leaders put together a fashion show where we wore our mother’s wedding dresses. I’d never kissed a boy, never been out on a date, and worried about placing so much value on something I could not control. At this point I had yet to hear anyone state that stay-at-home mothers were oppressed. My father was (and remains) a man who does dishes and vacuums floors. Even so, I refused to base my worth on men’s opinions, and chose instead to focus on my education.

My parents were proud when they dropped me off at Brigham Young University (owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in September of 1994. I shared a kitchen with five other girls who could not have been more different. Two of them planned to pursue their degrees come hell or high water, one made it known she would put it on hold for the right man, and the two remaining had enrolled for the sole purpose of finding a husband. Apparently, they viewed forking out thousands of dollars to a college they had no intention of graduating from as an investment rather than a waste of money.

In fairness, if their church leaders had been anything like mine, these girls had been told in every meeting and activity that a woman had no greater calling than to marry a righteous priesthood holder and rear a family. They simply wanted their lives to start.

Last night as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling fan to the left of my bed, I tried to explain to my husband that the pressure he felt to go on a mission at 19 is exactly like the pressure Mormon girls feel to get married to a worthy man. My husband wisely mentioned how tiresome it is to hear women in their twenties label themselves old maids. I had one such roommate my junior year who asked me how I could stand my single status when she believed hers meant there was something wrong with her. I kept myself from laughing at the lunacy of her statement only because she was about to cry. What I should have done was ask her why she needed a man (or anyone else) to tell her she was lovable?

I mention this as a tangent, a piece of the bigger picture, but it is also a necessary part of the story. In 1972, when my 31-year-old mother, who worked in DC as a secretary for the FBI, married a musician seven years younger than herself, she’d taken a leap of faith not uncommon for a Mormon woman. By the time she was 45, she had four healthy children and a 6-year-old son newly diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. The church took care of her needs. Meals were brought in, childcare provided. How is it that the same patriarchal system which afforded her so much security had the power to chip away at my roommate’s self-esteem by defining her as a wife and mother before she had even married?

What my parents and youth leaders really wanted was for us girls to find love, raise a family and be productive citizens. I don’t think anyone intended to create a culture where single women and those who deal with infertility struggle with their worth as human beings.

With single parent households rising and half of new marriages failing in the United States, the Mormon patriarchy is clinging harder than ever to traditional marriage. Preparing young women for motherhood by holding up pictures of LDS temples like those of Cinderella’s castle, where prince charming will whisk them away and give them a blissful storybook ending. But what most of us find upon entering our fairy tale kingdom is that the servants have been dismissed, and that we must build our relationship without a personal maid to cover up the girth of our frustrations, or a laundress to wash out the stains of our emotional baggage.

12 comments:

Hillary said...

Great post! So many observations and feelings I have experienced myself. You mentioned the LDS temple and Cinderella's castle. Even President Monson himself recently used a Cinderella reference when speaking to the young women. This use of princess culture in church really bothers me, and it seems to be becoming more prevalent. The Princess culture is just another way women are objectified into ornamental accessories who are valued for a narrow set of values; mainly their beauty. Princess stories end when they get married, and happily ever after is a given. This is a fantasy, and young women in the church deserve to be better prepared for a fuller picture of life. This is all a symptom of patriarchy. Patriarchy will always chiefly value women for their child rearing capabilities, and thus the goals they promote will serve that end.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wonderful post, Angela! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. I'm not Mormon, but I think it is important for all young women to learn who they are before they get married. Marriage is a lot of work. I married at 20, while still in college. I hope that my daughter finishes college and has some time in her career before she marries.

Angela Felsted said...

I have a lot of hopes for my daughters too. One of them is that they will go into a profession they can excel at regardless of their place in life, and another is that they won't be in a rush to find "Mr. Right." Let them feel comfortable in their own skin before they tie the knot with someone else.

Christine Hardy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine Hardy said...

Hey Angela, I'm a born-again Christian and did basically the same thing you did. Married a man I barely knew because we couldn't keep our hands off each other and I was feeling like an old maid at 27. It's been incredibly rocky and I still wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had waited longer to find someone better suited. We have very little in common other than a mutual commitment.

Yet, I know God is working in this marriage. We will be married fifteen years this summer. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." While I'm not a Mormon, I was raised with similarly strict principles and watched my mom submit to my dad. I love my dad, but he's got a lot of problems and their relationship has never been the best of models, which is probably why I repeated her mistake. You see, my parents got married on a 3-month acquaintance as well!

Yet, my sister and her husband dated (celibately) for three years before they got married and their marriage has been difficult as well. I always say that marriage is like being President: there is no way to prepare for it, you just have to do it.

I never really "found myself" until I had my son and joined a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) Group at a local church here in New Jersey. I had no family here, no friends other than the women I met at this church. My own family is 500 miles away. But God provided these women and such wonderful support. We are still in touch despite our kids growing older and all of us going back to work full time.

The traditional model does work if you see it as a privilege instead of a trap. My husband relies on me for so many things. He is a good provider but his job is so emotionally and physicially taxing, I really run things at home. At times it's so overwhelming I can barely cope (as I recently posted on my blog) but God promised to me that if I would stay, he would make a life for me here. And he has.

God will bless you for your faithfulness. Stay strong and true.

Your sister in Christ,
Christine

Anonymous said...

Great post. I can relate to everything you said. I hope my daughters get a better experience than I did.

MandaMommy said...

Beautifully written! I'll be waiting for the next installment...

Roslyn Ross said...

Beautifully written. It is insightful and almost poignant.

As to marrying young, I don't think that is necessarily the issue when it comes to a fulfilling and successful marriage - I have friends who knew each other for six weeks and who are still best of friends and very happy some 40 years later.

I married at 21, just, thinking if it did not work then I would leave, which is not the approach most counsellors would recommend, but it has worked for 41 years. Of course it isn't that easy to leave once children arrive and we did face a crisis after 8 years when it could have - but we didn't - we liked and loved each other too much and made our way through. Although it took seven years to get to the other side.

Having observed my own marriage and that of others and our generation(in Australia) was the first where if you wanted out of a marriage you got out - I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot of luck, fate, destiny etc., in marriages which 'work.'

I have seen people work hard and fail and seen people work little and succeed - like most things in life there are factors beyond our control - success and talent are not synonomous in any field, least of all marriage.

Coming from a secular situation where by the sixties if you wanted to have sex you did with no rules or laws to stop you - I think and feel that denying or seeking to prevent sexual experience before marriage is naieve, unnecessary and likely to add pressure which pushes people into marriage when they are not really suited - lust doesn't necessarily go with love or like.

Having some sexual experience before you choose to settle down, is, in my view a good thing and I have seen no harm come of it in my family, culture or community. Like all things the key word is moderation .... and common sense.

I have never regretted marrying young. My husband was not my first lover but he was and is my first love. And I waited until I was 19 before taking a lover. Interestingly my husband was then my friend and I talked to him about how I planned to lose my virginity. I did not know then that he loved me.... but as always he was wise and pragmatic. Thinking about it long and hard and making the decision after reading a book, the title of which I forget, which said that it is very important to like the first man you have sex with and to choose someone that you trust and care for. So I did. I didn't love him but I did like him and still do, although I have lost contact with him, and that first time was all I wanted it to be.

But I do appreciate that growing up in a religious community things are different and the pressures are greater. I think the saddest thing is how much guilt can be created around sex which is one of the most beautiful and precious gifts we are given in this world.

Anonymous said...

I read that last comment wistfully, as I have heard similar stories from others outside the church. But I have to honestly say that sex is one of the biggest disappointments in my life and that of other women I know. We waited for this? All the hype and frantic desperation is for ...? You're got to be joking!

However, if those of us who are poor lovers had to prove ourselves in bed to get a spouse we'd never get chosen nor enjoy the other benefits. So I'm grateful that the system protected me from being evaluated that way.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

Maybe you are doing it wrong. I mean that in all seriousness. We are taught for so long that sex is wrong, then when we are finally free to do it, we don't know how or don't allow ourselves to be free to do it right.

Anonymous said...

"I agreed to marry someone I hardly knew. We had been dating less than three months and neither of us had reason to rush things. He wasn’t dying; I wasn’t pregnant; and we both had our US citizenship." I love this. I did it two years ago to protect a fine man who was being abused by the LDS people in his world.

S said...

Angela,

Wonderful post. Reading your story was like reading my own. I am the child of a twice divorced mother, so I bought the fairy tale too. I wanted my perfect Prince to erase the pain of my childhood. I fell hard off the proverbial white horse after our wedding. Still trying to figure out what is real happiness and what is fabricated fairytale marriage fodder.

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